Altar of the Nameless Dead (
Altar of the Nameless Dead by Heather Miller

Title: Altar of the Nameless Dead
Year: 2010
Size: 36″ x 48″ x ~18″

The Altar of the Nameless Dead was created using wood, acrylic paint, spray paint, painter’s caulk, and polyurethane.

The Story:

The Altar of the Nameless Dead was a fun project.  It also served two purposes.  First, I needed a sign-in table for a Day of the Dead themed art show.  Second, I needed a project for my Sculpture II class in art school.  Since, at the time, I didn’t have any power tools that could cut large pieces of wood, being able to do this for a school project in the wood shop was a huge help.

The inspiration for the piece came from a Day of the Dead parade.  There was a costumed performer riding a float that looked like a skeletal horse.  It was a black paper-mache horse with white bones painted on it.  I thought that would be a great aesthetic for the table.

When I started this, I had never built any type of furniture in my life.  I never took shop class in 8th grade like the other kids because I was in private school for part of that year (which didn’t offer shop or home economics).  I also discovered that my college’s shop class was rather lacking.  I also developed a healthy skepticism when it came to the safety of a lot of the machinery.  Half of the stuff I did use there was insanely dull.  Then there was a lack of equipment that would have been useful in building a table.  I ended up buying a Dremel which I brought to & from class along with my mini power drill / screwdriver combo, and my own set of drill bits.  All in all, it was an interesting experience.

After getting the table top and 4 legs put together, I realized it was going to need a stabilizer so I added the bars at the bottom.  A similar structure was built at the top so I could attach more bones.  I cut and carved the feet and skulls myself.  I used the school’s bandsaw for the shape and then carved in detail with my Dremel.  The kneecaps are made of polymer clay.  The bones I bought online.

Once everything was attached, I covered all the the portions that are white in painter’s caulk.  It took many days for the caulk to cure.  The reason I used it is because it creates a paper-mache like texture but is lightweight when dry.  It’s also very inexpensive.  Once the caulk was dry, I carefully painted around all of that in black.  I also went over all the caulked areas with a bright white acrylic paint.

The skulls along the back of the altar are detachable.  I knew I would have to move this table several times and I worried that I would accidentally break one off during one of the moves.  Instead of permanently attaching them,  I used “L brackets” to attach to the table.  All I had to do was a remove a few screws from each and I could move the table without worry.

I ended up having the table for a lot longer than I had planned.  I’m happy that it finally found a home after the [email protected] show in 2013.